At just 33 years, Nobel Laureate Patrick Modiano (2014) , received the coveted Goncourt– the most prestigious literary prize in the French speaking world, for his short but powerful novel- Rue Des Boutiques Obscures. The year was 1978 and Modiano was already a literary sensation by then. He had been catapulted to fame by his debut – Place de L’Étoile, which established Modiano as one of the first French writers to exorcise the ghosts of Occupation that hung over France of the 60s and the 70s.
In Rue Des Boutiques Obscures, the narrator- an amnesiac ex-detective called Guy Roland, begins the novel with the hard-hitting line, “I am nothing.” The novel accompanies Roland as he tries to retrace his past to figure out who he really is. Every time he perceives a clue to his identity, it fades into the memory of someone else. The moment he thinks that he could be the child of a well-heeled family whose stories hit the pages of Society magazines in the 30s, Guy Roland’s quest leads him to another identity. A Pedro McEvoy, who was the secretary in a South American embassy in Paris. But wasn’t this the pseudonym of a certain designer called Jimmy Stern who disappeared in 1940? And whatever happened to Jimmy’s ex-model wife, Denise, who wanted to flee a France that was becoming too dangerous? So is Roland, Jimmy? Or is he Pedro? Or is he someone else altogether?
By investigating his past step by step, the narrator tries to reconstitute a puzzle that has been blown away by the Occupation and the Holocaust. All that remain are photographs in shoe boxes, fading memories and legends- none of which add up. The language and themes are typical of Modiano. Furtive, deceptively simple, sober yet mysterious. Carefully, through the guise of a detective story, Modiano starts digging out the lost stories of the Holocaust that Europe and France were eager to forget.
The book holds true to Modiano’s famous sentence- “To live is to obstinately refuse completing a memory.” Perhaps, this makes this slim book a perfect introduction to the works of the Nobel Laureate. His easy to read style is pure and simple, yet full of depth. The ever shifting game of memory and the quest for identity- trying to reconstruct the life of lost people through something as insubstantial as the memory of someone else. These are themes that lie close to the heart of this great writer and few, ever, have told the tales of these marginal people lost in the fog of history and time, better than Modiano.
At the end of the book, you are sure to think long and hard about what you just read. Layers, which you did not perceive in the reading, will unfurl as you realize that Modiano’s simple style had deceived you into thinking that the tale was as simple as the style. As days go and your mind keeps swirling around this little book that you finished in half a day, you are left truly awestruck by the genius of one of the greatest writers of our time.
Rue Des Boutiques Obscures is translated in English as Missing Person. Of course, you can enjoy it better in its original French and you can always write to us, Babel School of Languages, to learn French online 🙂